OMAK, Wash. - To hear Wendell George tell it, Paschal Sherman Indian School was a tough environment in which to teach and learn.
George's father attended the school when it was built near the start of the 20th century. The beauty and character of its people were not reflected in the buildings. A fire destroyed some school buildings in 1919 and the Catholic Church, which operated the school, didn't have money to rebuild. In the 1970s, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation took the school over from the church.
The tribes got the school on a federal list to be rebuilt, but construction never came. The BIA later condemned all permanent buildings, forcing students into doublewide portables that by now have outlived their use.
In August 2004, all of that will change when the new $18 million Paschal Sherman Indian School opens.
"Children can best learn, and teachers can best teach, when they aren't worrying that their classrooms will fall down," U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in announcing funding for reconstruction earlier this year.
George, a member of the school's steering committee, added, "It took 20 years of effort ? It will be a showpiece."
In April, the Confederated Tribes awarded design and construction contracts to ALSC Architects and Garco Construction, two local firms that built the 12,000-seat Spokane Arena and were recently selected to build the new Gonzaga Arena.
"Garco and ALSC were the only team able to demonstrate a real understanding of who we are, what we desire for the school," George said.
"The Paschal Sherman School defines many of our young people and they deserve a place to be inspired."
of Colville heritage
The school is being built with steel frames, which is less expensive and speeds construction. Part of the buildings are being built below ground-level so it will retain heat in the winter and cool in the summer; it will also serve as a reminder of the pit houses once occupied by the people of the Confederated Tribes, George said.
The buildings will be open and airy with lots of windows for natural light. Colors will be natural and common to the area, what George calls "indigenous colors."
A two-story cultural center is among the school's most prominent buildings. It represents the important role heritage and education play in tribal culture. A glass wall and skylight surround a "solar clock" formed by metal salmon swimming to reflect shadows on an adjacent wall. At certain times of the day, the shadow takes the form of a coyote.
"Salmon and coyote are among the cultural representations of primary importance," said Scott Whitesitt, design team leader for ALSC Architects. "It was important to reflect these in the design. It also has an added benefit of teaching students about the tribes' relationship with the earth and sun."
The school will have formal and informal sheltered areas for outdoor learning, interaction and performances. The school will also get a gymnasium, cafeteria, dormitories, bus garage, and improved access for individuals with disabilities.
Up to 100 students will live at the school in the new dorms.
George said the new school be able to accommodate anticipated growth. The school is currently a K-9 school with 160 students; the five-year plan calls for expanding to K-12 and 250 students.
Replacing aging schools
Paschal Sherman Indian School is located on 26 acres of Colville tribal land. It is one of six aging tribal schools scheduled to be rebuilt around the country; the others are Polacca Day School, Polacca, Ariz.; Holbrook Dormitory, Holbrook, Ariz.; Santa Fe Indian School, Santa Fe, N.M.; Wingate Elementary School Dormitory, Fort Wingate, N.M.; and Ojibwa Indian School, Belcourt, N.D.
All told, the U.S. government will spend $122.8 million.
Interior Secretary Norton said the construction funds were overdue: Many of the buildings have deteriorated to the point where it is no longer economically feasible to continue making repairs to them. Health and safety code violations expose students and staff to potential life-threatening situations throughout the campus.
"For far too long, Indian children have been left behind," she said. "This budget request shows the Bush administration's dedication to creating environments where the minds, spirits and aspirations of thousands of Native American children may flourish."
George said he expects an improvement in student performance and morale.
"It's going to be a wonderful place to learn. Academics and preparation for life are important, but it's also central to the tribes that students have an appreciation and understanding of tribal culture. The new school will help do this."
Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.